How the Future of Journalism has a Surprising Finale
September 5th, 1994. On this day, a series about the quirks of four flatmates is preparing to debut. “Friends” will tank at first, but then become iconic. US sports star OJ Simpson’s murder trial is set to end its jury selection for one of the most anticipated court cases in recent times. And in Switzerland a law will soon pass making public racist propaganda and anti-semitic acts a criminal offence.
In Central London, in a building previously owned by Britain’s 4th Channel, Channel 4 , which is currently in the news fighting against PM Boris Johnson’s plans to privatise it, a little known media prototype is launched.
Behind closed doors, for approximately three months, thirty youngster have been training everyday to perfect something never been done in British News programming. It will also be one of the first in the world.
Owned by the newspaper conglomerate Associated Newspaper and bankrolled to the tune of £50m by one of Britain’s most respected newspaper editors, Sir David English, this day Channel One will launch to fanfare and media trepidation.
For media executives, if it works it will destroy the lie that not everyone could make media. For Britain’s media unions, it will unwittingly dismantle their power and the union’s ban on any journalist taking on technical jobs — which risked strike action.
The radical idea by a New Yorker, Michael Rosenblum, accepted by Sir David, is to turn thirty youngsters into videojournalists. One journalist will film, direct, research, produce, report, and sometimes edit their own report.
It may sound easy today because everyone is more or less doing this. Its equivalence now would be like asking every journalist to know how to run python or SciPy, Pandas and nltk to set up AI back end, whilst against everything else they do, create visualisation methods akin to tableau.
If all of that sounds gobbledygook that’s what it felt like on that sunny London September 5th, with the announcement of Channel One. How you white balance the lens of a 15k camera and ingest that into an edit ensuring its safe for broadcast are the hidden technical aspects of news production.
“Welcome to a brand new channel covering London 24 hours, 7 days a week”. Channel One’s newscaster didn’t mention the use of videojournalists on air. Why would they? That was for the PR department. All the viewers were interested in was, did it look and sound good. And was it, as the station’s slogan would extol, “news you can use”.
This is where I personalise this story, because I was one of the thirty out of three thousand people hired by Channel One, and to become one of the first professional news videojournalists in the world. Bold claim! It was a blessing and and curse.
A blessing because many and I learned that it rarely was about the tech in the creation of watchable television. Yes, the tech was an enabler and had its merits but if a skilled filmmaker set about creating content on a beta camera, or by today’s standards an i-phone, it was her cognition, approach, methods, ideas that really mattered. Yet in somewhat cognitive dissonance speak, used strategically the tech enabled you to do something rarely achieved before.
The Father of Cinema Verite
In the 1960s, a Life Magazine writer/ editor turned filmmaker discovered the aforementioned with his friends. Robert Drew miniaturised a standard news camera, burning a $1M hole in the pocket of his employer, and in so doing gave the world Direct Cinema or Cinema Verite. I will speak to Drew on the phone some fifteen years later and also meet members of his famous crew (play video below).
Drew cracked something that would stare Channel One youngsters in the face. It was the potential for a new film language, in effect building on the work of Drew. But we were not to know and the same resistance Drew encountered in his days would also consume us. Rosenblum taught Channel One VJs a radically efficient, new aesthetic beyond normative news and then the station baulked at pushing ahead with it.
Why a curse? Because since that day, that knowledge, I’ve never been satisfied at seeing the way news, documentary or digital media is made. Since that day, I have been into the woods looking at the holy grail of media.
Some milestones provide some perspective.
In 2001, I was invited by BBC executives to talk about videojournalism. Having been critical of the form for many years, the BBC was about to adopt it for its nations and regions.
In 2005, I combined new skills in coding websites and Flash (a now deprecated software) to build one of the first video magazines in the world. It would win one of the US most prestigious digital awards — the Knight Batten Awards. The judges said it “foreshadows the future”.
Five years later the Guardian newspaper would be announced winners of the award declaring themselves the first British outfit to do so.
In 2006, I would become the recipient of the International Videojournalism Awards, in Berlin. I had been asked by the UK Press Association to train all of the UK’s regional newspaper journalists into becoming videojournalists. I turned this into a film. An international panel of judges referred to the news film as “Cinema”.
From 2006 to 2016 I was engaged in a whirlwind of conferences and invites from around the world: SXSW, Egypt, China, Apple, World Newspapers Forum, News X Change, BBC Executives, The Financial Times — these were just a few.
By 2015, I was ready to submit my doctoral thesis that collapsed multiple disciplines and new evidence around a singular idea that showed how execs continually misunderstood news, particularly via videojournalism and that there was a future of news that remained untapped.
A number of new media such as TikTok have found a way to harvest a media formula that provides an easy fix that young people intuitively get. They are what could be called “cinema moments”. Last week I interviewed one of TikTok’s most watched journalist CNN’s Max Foster and what makes TikTok work is part of my findings.
Similarly, there exists a select band of journalists who continually win awards.
Many of us have come to admire their work deeply, including this man on my right — the BBC’s Clive Myrie, a multiple award winning journalist.
One of the central tenants of film, as opposed to journalism is “feelingful” qualities. It’s what film scholar David Bordwell refers to as making the audience empathise with the characters or film works. Listen to one of several areas, where Clive embraces this. Empathy and emotions is an area that divides old and new skool newsmakers.
Two critical situations (as questions) help understand.
Firstly, if in the 1950s News was not constrained by a small sized television, and bulky tech, as well as staff who were largely from newspapers, what could it look like?
Secondly, could you create media that viewers returned to, rather than how news is produced today which is ephemeral?
Thirdly, if Netflix made news today, what would it look like?
Fourthly, what if Scorsese or Spielberg made news?
I shared my knowledge with big media and outfits this year, such as :
- TV2 Denmark in a 2 hour keynote
- Facebook accelerator project with India journalists
- leading Russian multimedia journalists and academics in Russia.
So what is the holy grail? The simple answer is: cinema. But not so fast, if you’re a film scholar or film aficionado this opens more questions. Cinema? yes Cinema. But cinema is not one unified form; it’s cultural, complex and not necessarily fiction.
Cinema is life.
Robert Drew discovered that fifty years ago and so did the rest of the world, when we adopted cinema verite. But Drew’s work remain unfinished. He says so as much in my interview.
And importantly it’s not just a matter of its cinematography; the look, though it’s part of the package that persuades audiences to immerse themselves. Oscar winners Minari( 2020) and Nomadland (2020) exist in that space between cinema and journalism.
I’ve become humbled by what I have learned from some of the greatest filmmakers and scholars in the world, and in that world of cinema lies many answers to the deficiencies of our current woes. I hope that doesn’t sound like hubris.
Here, multiple award winning filmmaker, writer and scholar Mark Cousins makes a comparison between impressionism and videojournalism in my work. It does inform my work and it influences cinema of the 1920s and thereon.
One of the curses when leaving Channel One was that many of its employers could not find jobs. They were pariahs. They knew something the industry didn’t want to hear. To rebuild their careers, they would omit Channel One from their CVs.
Channel One is a footnote now in British, let alone, global news history. Yet many of its former videojournalists like BAFTA winner Dimitri Doganis (The Imposter) have gone on to great things talking as he is here talking about the influence of cinema in his work, which comes from his days at Channel One.
It’s time to come out of the woods.
David is one of the top writers on Medium in Journalism. You can find out more about him here.